Poe: American Literature’s Bitter Uncle

Ladies and Gentlemen! There has been a palace coup in the We Happy Few Managerial Hierarchy! I have been deposed as Production Manager by the altogether-more-competent Kiernan McGowan, who, I promise, will live to rue the day he dared step to me. I shall engineer such a revenge that the ill-gotten fruits of his underhanded betrayal will turn to ashes in his mouth, and he will weep for a death which will not come will do a much better job in the role than Yours Truly. I, for my sins, have been given the title of Literary Director and was graciously allowed to keep the title of Blogslave after I told them that they could have the password to this WordPress account when they pried it from my cold dead hands. “But what does this mean for me, the loyal follower of WHF?” I hear you asking, and the answer is: literally nothing. Unless you are a member of the organization this change will impact you not even the tiniest bit, except that our names will be labelled differently in the programs of future shows. So I encourage you to put it out of your mind and come with me into today’s blog post.

In celebration of our new organizational structure, in recognition of my sexy new title, and in anticipation of some very exciting upcoming performances of ours, I would like to offer you some thoughts on American writing’s mopey godfather: Edgar Allan Poe. I personally regard Poe as the father of horror. Others call him the father of the detective story and of science fiction, and even of the American short story. Indeed, with so many literary children to take care of it is small wonder that he drank himself to death! [rimshot] But I am not here to tell you about his drinking problem (…yet), I want to talk to you about his legacy and how his stories, for all their influence, never earned him the title that would seem to be rightfully his: the Father of American Literature.


Before we really get into that a brief biographical sketch is necessary. Edgar Poe was born in 1809 in Boston to an actress named Elizabeth Poe, whose husband David either died or disappeared at some point in 1810. In 1811 Elizabeth moved to Richmond and then died in her turn, leaving Edgar too far from his paternal grandfather to be brought up with him and therefore at the mercy of the people of Richmond. He was taken in (but not adopted; he retained the name ‘Poe’) by wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife Fanny. Fanny seems to have cared more for the boy than John, with whom Edgar did not get along. Allan was not a member of the landed Virginia gentry, but rather a first-generation Scots trader who had made good, and it is likely that his neighbors did not let him forget it. Poe was betrothed to a woman named Sarah Elmira Royster, with whom he exchanged letters for some time despite her father’s disapproval of the match. Poe attended the University of Virginia but was forced to withdraw after a year due to financial difficulties (Allan had provided Poe with not quite enough money for both classes and rent, and Poe was forced to borrow and gamble in an ill-conceived attempt to make it up). Upon returning to Richmond he discovered that Sarah Royster had married someone else, doubtless under pressure from her father. After a series of arguments with Allan, Poe ran away to Boston where he published his first collection of poetry. It did not make any money and he was forced to join the Army to make ends meet. After some time in the Army, and with the aid of Fanny on her deathbed, Poe was able to convince Allan to support his bid to enter West Point. Unfortunately bad luck conspired to delay his entry until 1830, by which time Fanny Allan had died. Some of Poe’s debts caught up to his foster father in this time period and Allan severed all communication with Poe around the same time as he was expelled from West Point in 1831. Poe moved to Baltimore and lived with his paternal Aunt Maria Clemm and his 9-year-old cousin and future wife Virginia Clemm (they would marry when she was 13. Not as unusual for the time as you might think, but certainly…off-putting).

From this point until his death in 1849 he worked as a professional writer and lecturer, as well as an editor and critic for literary magazines. He regarded it as his mission as a critic to improve the quality of American writing and make it competitive with the writers of Europe, especially England and France (where he was always more popular than America), and as such he made powerful foes of a clique of New York writers, centered on the Knickerbocker magazine and led by the hilariously-named twin editors Lewis and Willis Gaylord Clark, for their propensity to “puff”, or uncritically endorse, each other’s pieces in reviews. He achieved widespread fame upon the publication of “The Raven” in 1845 but was unable to parley even that into financial security, often moving between Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City as work and finances dictated. Virginia died in 1847 after fighting tuberculosis for some time, and Poe himself died under somewhat mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk and wearing someone else’s clothes) in Baltimore some two years later. For a number of years his reputation in America was damaged by the actions of his literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had (unbeknownst to Poe) hated him and spread rumors of infidelity and drug abuse after his death, but his legacy had been salvaged by the end of the 19th century.

You may have noticed that my biography seems to lean very heavily on his early years, before he became one of America’s first professional writers. I assure you that this is by design; it is my belief that Poe’s writing was more shaped by the first half of his life than the second. Poe learned at a young age what it was to be alone, to be outside of the norm, and it seems that he may never have truly learned what it was like to be otherwise. The lessons of Poe’s childhood were cruel and thorough, as I hope I have demonstrated above. He learned how it felt to lose a loved one, to disappoint a friend, to be hungry and cold for want of money, to desire a thing he could not attain, and above all, to be neither welcome nor wanted by those around him. Though Poe did happily marry, and his later life was as full of bosom friends as with rivals, he would never reach a financial level that one might call “stable”, let alone comfortable, despite his fame, and he still struggled with bouts of depression, which were doubtless exacerbated by his financial instability and his wife’s untimely demise. It should come as no surprise that his writing should tend toward the macabre and Gothic, into the dark and brooding half of Romanticism and away from the nationalist Romanticism of his fellows.


Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. This picture is pretty much all you need to know about Romanticism.

Poe seems to have projected this psychological isolation and half-imagined social exile onto his characters. Contrary to the now-traditional American protagonist of the cunning and self-made frontiersman, popularized by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and inspired by outdoorsy American heroes such as Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Andrew Jackson, Poe created elegant, aristocratic protagonists. Prince Prospero, Roderick Usher, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Montresor, and his many nameless narrators of such pieces as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat”: these are men of property and education. They are aristocrats, similar to Poe’s classmates at the University of Virginia or West Point, or his childhood friends in Richmond. But (excepting Mssr. Dupin) their education and breeding boots them naught. Poe’s characters are almost universally undone or driven mad by their own obsessions, by their isolation, their superiority, their overwhelming desire for the unattainable, and above all by their arrogance. His characters are blind to their faults, assuming that their superior intelligence and class will keep them safe, that they are too clever and important to suffer any consequences. Poe inverted the American Dream, before we even really knew what that meant. His characters start with everything and then lose it all.


Squandered Resources, Visions, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Romas Kukalis

Even more striking than Poe’s choice of characters is his choice of settings and subjects. Poe’s contemporaries, Longfellow, Whitman, Whittier, Cooper, Hawthorne, Irving, positively reveled in writing about the the rough, vast new country in which they found themselves. Longfellow, a member of the adversarial Knickerbocker clique and Your Humble Narrator’s favorite poet, is best known for the thoroughly American poems Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Hawthorne rooted himself so inextricably to colonial Massachusetts that I had to read The Scarlet Letter twice in high school, first to learn about Puritans and then again to learn about Transcendentalism. Cooper’s Leatherstocking stories may be poorly written drivel, but they were indisputably American drivel. Whitman even wrote a poem titled “I Hear America Singing”, for God’s sake! The American frontier and our brief but vibrant history offers an infinity of stories to American writers.

But Poe was not seduced by the Great Wide Open or America’s heroic past. Poe’s stories are set in crowded cities, where people get too close and drive one another mad, where apes escape from their owners and commit grisly murders, where science, blindly pursued, visits horrific consequences on its practitioners. They take place in crumbling manors and castles, where mad kings die at their own hideous parties and where long-sought vengeance is planned. They take place in richly appointed rooms where men may be alone with their grief and their wine. They take place in nightmares and prison cells, museums and graveyards, hurricanes and catacombs. Poe didn’t completely ignore America, “The Gold-Bug” is set on an island where he was stationed in the Army and Arthur Gordon Pym is from Nantucket, but he did not feel the urge to tell ‘American’ stories in the way that his colleagues did. Maybe his melancholia simply found better purchase in the foggy Gothic settings favored by his colleagues in Europe than the bright sun of the American frontier, though I think the answer is more complicated than that. Poe, perhaps, did not have the same unblemished view of his country as his fellows. His experience with America had shown him many more unfriendly faces, closed doors, and cold, dark city streets than welcoming arms and sun-dappled meadows. Moreover, he did not feel himself to be a member of the community of American writers which he had worked so strenuously to create, and which had consistently shunned and maligned him, even after he was in the grave.


“A Descent Into the Maelstrom”. Illustration by Harry Clarke, for Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

For these reasons I find it difficult to either grant or rescind Poe the title of Father of American Literature. He was among the first and greatest writers in American history and he dedicated his life to improving America’s writing profile on the world stage.  But at the same time his stories, for all of his being one of America’s finest writers, are not American. They are horror stories, detective stories, adventure stories, melancholy poems, introspective poems, the origins of science fiction, but not a one of them is an American story in the way that Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby is. Poe’s writing lacks the setting and the spirit that sets The Great American Novel apart from other genres. It is impossible to ignore his role in American literature but his own actions disqualify him from the title. It’s all right, though. Horror is a better genre than Americana.

If you agree with me that horror is great, and you also think that drinking is great, keep a weather eye on this space as well as the We Happy Few emails, websitetwitter, and facebook; however you keep track of our comings and goings. We will have some Poe-related things coming up  soon that you will be VERY excited to attend. Remember THIS THING I told you about last year? Think bigger, and keep your eyes open for more details! Until next time, I am (and always have been) your friend Keith Hock.

[editor’s note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that, in addition to Wikipedia for quick fact-checking, I relied heavily upon Nigel Barnes’ “A Dream Within a Dream: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe” (Peter Owen Publishers, 2009) and Edward H. Davidson’s “Poe: A Critical Study” (Harvard University Press, 1957) while writing this blog post. KH]

CHALK: The Medium IS the Message

Hello again adoring fans! Keith Hock here, and I wanted to tell you some more about our critically acclaimed play CHALK, playing now at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In earlier posts I had wanted to keep some secrets from you all in order to preserve the element of surprise when you came to see the show, but since the run is now two-thirds over I am assuming that most of you have already come to check it out, and hoping that this introduction serves to shame the rest of you into coming in this final week of shows. To that end, I am going to talk to you more about set design, chalk, and the role that the latter can play in the former than you ever wanted to hear. Please note that if you don’t want to have a SUPER COOL element of the show spoiled for you, it would be advisable for you to stop reading until you have a chance to come see it for yourself.

If you have seen the show, or, like, any of our promotional materials, you will know that chalk drawings feature prominently in the set for CHALK. We Happy Few stakes a portion of its considerable reputation on the minimalist nature of its sets; this show probably has our second-largest set besides Tempest, and this set is a couple of platforms, a diagonal wall with some doors and a tower, and some stools. To supplement this design and to help establish a sense of place we have a bunch of drawings all over the walls, some of them chalk sketches and some white paint cleverly disguised as chalk sketches. These drawings help to clarify where we are and what’s going on on-stage; a town, a pillar, a cart, some doors. In the distance a mountain range. These drawings are not strictly necessary to indicate what’s going on; we can, and have, done shows with less set dressing than this. But it certainly doesn’t hurt the piece any to have them there, and besides prettifying the stage and indicating that sense of space, like I said above, they give us an opportunity to do something super neato with the set that a show can’t ordinarily do, which I will get to after another paragraph of explanation and scene-setting.


CHALK backdrop. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Tori Boutin.

It is in the nature of black box shows in general and We Happy Few shows in particular to be tricky to indicate changes of scene, location, and the passage of time. You can use lights, you can shift around what little set elements you may have, and you can have your characters exposit. We are supremely fortunate that we are able to work with one of the best lighting designers in the city, Jason Aufdem-Brinke, so our light game is and always has been on point. Character exposition is both the clunkiest and the most ubiquitous method of indicating those changes; you would be hard-pressed to find a play that doesn’t use dialogue to either imply or flat-out say where and when the action is taking place, because plays are written to be seen, not read, and audiences don’t have those convenient stage directions at the beginning of every scene to contextualize the performance unless your director is REALLY pretentious. So we fall on even footing with context clues as well. But We Happy Few really can’t compete with a full ‘drop curtain, wait 20 seconds, the corn field is now a bustling frontier town’, ‘turntable rotates from Skid Row to the interior of the dentist’s office’, or ‘a whole new backdrop flies in from the ceiling and we are now in the King’s Palace in Siam’ style transition such that a company with a full stage crew or using a fully kitted-out stage would use.

So we did what we always do; we improvised. We knew already that there was going to be a scene where the Judge would draw a circle on the floor, for the climactic moment in the play. We said “why not do, like, a whole bunch more of that?” We already knew drawing, having the characters interact directly with and add to the set, is going to be a part of the world, so we decided to lean into it, and we started drawing all over the stage. Want to set the city on fire? Scribble red and orange chalk all over it and smear it a little. Need a river? Some blue chalk on the floor and hey presto! a river appears. Script says a scene is happening in a bar? Write BAR on the wall after you enter. We’re in the countryside now? Here’s some flowers to prove it. Props budget a little tight and we can’t afford any dummies to drop from the rafters in a grisly facsimile of a public hanging? Draw up a hangman, an image so simple and evocative that we literally use it as a game to teach spelling [which, come to think of it, wow, right? ed.]. This genius decision allowed us to expand on that sense of place that the artwork was creating. It also gave us the opportunity to democratize the space; the actors are not trapped in a static world, they are in control of their own environment, and can affect change on the world around them.

Raven the Arsonist.JPG

CHALK. Pictured: Raven Bonniwell. Design by Adelaide Waldrop, picture by Tori Boutin.

One of the beauties of chalk as a medium is that it is dry, so it can be applied, seen, and interacted with immediately without making a huge mess or damaging costumes. Another is that is cheap, so we can use it to approximate props or set pieces that would have broken the bank or we just couldn’t have had otherwise; I don’t know HOW we would have done a bridge without the chalk conceit. A third is that it can be cleaned and wiped away with relatively little effort, which is why we as a society use it to teach math and spelling to children and announce the specials at bars restaurants, and why we as a company thought it would be perfect. Draw everywhere for the show, wipe it clean at the end of the night, start with a blank slate the next day!

It turns out it is not quite as simple to clean up as one might believe. The last time the walls of the stage were totally clean was the first time we came into the space after our chalk artist, Adelaide Waldrop, had added her drawings, but before the actors started drawing everywhere. What we had failed to realize was that, if the set drawings are chalk, and OUR drawings are ALSO chalk, when we try to clean it up we will obliterate the nice professional drawings that Adelaide along with our slapdash mid-show sketches. This problem is assuaged somewhat by the fact that Adelaide used some mysterious substance called “chalk markers” which isn’t affected when wiped with a dry rag. It IS, however, just as vulnerable to water as normal sidewalk or school chalk, so we wouldn’t wet-wipe the walls as we wanted [this clause brought to you by the letter W!]. We realized this about halfway through tech, so we had ourselves a desperate little pow-wow about what we should do about this conundrum. Wet-wiping AROUND the permanent art every night would have taken for-damn-ever and ran the risk of accidentally erasing part of the artwork. The designs are too elaborate to erase and re-draw for every performance, even if Adelaide had been willing to do so, which we were reasonably confident she was not. We started to go over the designs with paint to em-permanent them all but realized we wouldn’t have time to go over everything, and thought that it would look bad if part of the set was restored to pristine blackness and part was left dusty. We were at a loss.

Aftermath Panorama

CHALK. Pictured: Bridget Grace Sheaff. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Kerry McGee.

What we decided to to, as you can see, is nothing. We leaned into it again, a favorite tool of mine, because it lets me be very lazy. It occurred to us that it made a lot of sense to the themes of the show for there to be physical evidence of previous performances on the stage. So much of this play is about cycles of history, about gradual change and the way that the past echoes in the future. The ever-present chalk dust establishes that on both a textual and metatheatrical level. Our city of Tuzla and the surrounding countryside is permeated with the dust of revolutions past; every action anyone takes, every thing they draw, is happening on top of what happened before. Zeke and Natalya both recall the rebellion in Persia, and they trace clear parallels to the current uprising. That rebellion was put down but the memory of it echoes in this one, and the memory of this rebellion will echo in the future. No matter how hard you try, you can’t completely erase the past, you can’t start over with a clean slate. From a metatheatrical level the mess of chalk dust hanging around the space reminds the audience that this is not the first time we’ve done this. The performance you’re watching isn’t the only performance we’ve done, and it didn’t just happen. The dust looks back at the show the night before and the week of tech rehearsals in the middle of June, and reminds us that the show didn’t always look like this, and it might not look like this tomorrow. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it would be a mistake to forget that. When rehearsals started in mid-May the play was still being written. The purpose of rehearsal is to learn how to tell a story, so things by necessity will change. Then tech started, and we had to learn how to fit the story into our space and integrate technical aspects. And then we found out what works and what doesn’t with an audience on opening night. The chalk dust reminds us how we got to where we are, and that things are neither as permanent nor as transient as we may believe.

I hope reading this has been as illuminating and enjoyable for you as writing it was for me. If you had no idea what I was talking about, it’s probably because you haven’t seen the performance yet and don’t have any context for what I was saying. But fear not! We still have a week’s worth of performances left in the run, from this coming Wednesday the 6th until Saturday the 9th over at CHAW. There is still time to see it, but that time is running out, so don’t delay! Come on by sometime this week and check us out! Tickets are available HERE. Mention that you heard about it from Keith when you come! It won’t, you know, matter, we won’t do anything special for you, but it’d make me feel good if you told everyone the reason you did something was because of what I said.

CHALK: The Judge on stage

Hello again, everyone! I’m glad I caught you today! This is Keith Hock, Production Manager, Technical Director, occasional Dramaturge, and Blogslave for We Happy Few, your favorite DC indie theatre company and your biggest tax write-off. My boss Raven Bonniwell pulled me aside after one of our run-throughs a few days ago and rather forcibly reminded me that writing blog posts is like the only reason they keep me around asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for me to throw something together for you folks to read, and seeing as we open THIS VERY EVENING I figured it was probably about time to get something up here.

This is a play about a trial, as you should remember from the small book I wrote about the play’s history a month or so ago (I promise this one will be shorter). Oh, sure, other stuff happens it in, things which I am told by the actors and director are important, and which I will probably talk to you all about once you’ve had a chance to see the play. But the trial is the climactic scene, the core of the Ur-Myth that I just can’t seem to stop talking about, and I wanted to look into what makes the trial so pivotal and interesting. To that end, I gathered as many trial plays as I could get my grubby mitts on and I read them, back-to-back-to-back, while tech rehearsals happened around me, to see what I could learn and turn into a blog post so I could keep my job.



Trials are already very dramatic by their own nature, and playwrights were quick to pick up on that. Playwrights from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Miller have explored the topic. The stories regularly explore bigotry and injustice within the legal system (Gross Injustice, 12 Angry Men, Trial of the Catonsville Nine), but also examine how trials serve the cause of justice, and why we use them (The Eumenides, A Few Good Men, God’s Country, 12 Angry Men again). Frequently playwrights write about famous or significant cases like the Salem Witch Trials and the Scopes Monkey Trial, and famous lawyers, by which I mean Clarence Darrow, because Clarence Darrow is the only famous lawyer in American history and has had at least 3 plays written about his trials. These accounts of real trials and of Clarence Darrow vary between using the actual words used in the trial (Gross Indecency, God’s Country) to varying levels of fictionalization, from assumptions about what Leopold and Loeb may have said to each other interspersed with real trial language in Never the Sinner to making up a whole new town, trial name, and Clarence Darrow analogue in Inherit the Wind. They confusingly tell us it is both right AND wrong to persecute Jews (Merchant of Venice, God’s Country). Occasionally the playwrights write about themselves, as Daniel Berrigan did about his own trial in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine or, more broadly their art, when Moises Kaufman wrote about the Trials of Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency.  Sometimes the stories are invented from whole cloth, as in A Few Good Men or The Merchant of Venice, or to explore what a trial could uncover in a different story, such as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot or that time in middle school when your English teacher made you put Goldilocks on trial for breaking and entering. It is a form ripe for storytelling, and it can be used to tell all manner of stories.

But in the reading of all these plays I noticed a peculiar thing. The character of the Judge, a key figure in a trial, is tremendously and unaccountably underrepresented, at least in the selection of plays that I read. It is truly astounding how few of the Judges even get names. Lawyers, plaintiffs, witnesses, and defendants have traits and agency and all those things that a character calls for in order to be interesting to the audience. Even juries get to have personality! 12 Angry Men is literally all about jurors butting heads, and both Inherit the Wind and The Trial of the Catonsville Nine include portions of the juror selection process. But the Judges seldom get these, serving instead as the implement of the court; a tool, not a person. The whims, idiosyncrasies, and beliefs of the Judge in a courtroom have a tremendous impact on the course of a trial, but in many of these plays the Judge may as well be a mildly biased robot. The Judge exists in these dramas to dispense courtroom jargon, threaten to “clear the court”, and frequently to overrule the objections of whichever lawyer the audience is supposed to like more.

Judge 723.png

Judge 723, Futurama.

When the Judge DOES get a sketch of characterization, as I alluded to at the end of that previous paragraph, it is to be either a vocal representative of the status quo or openly antagonistic to the case of the protagonist, or both. The most well-defined Judge in the dozen or so plays that I read for this project would probably be Judge Littlefield in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, whose only traits are that he hanged himself on a Civil War battlefield, that he absolutely hates the attorney who is bringing the suit on behalf of Judas, and that he ran a chain of successful “Kosher Pizza Parlors in East Purgatory” with Caiaphas the Elder and must therefore recuse himself when Caiaphas takes the stand (it’s a weird play). The Judge in Inherit the Wind doesn’t have a name, but he is more than happy to make pro-religion announcements from the bench in a religiously charged case and to dismiss out of hand every single witness presented by the defense. Likewise the Judge in Gross Indecency, who has the temerity to assert that “There is no worse crime than that with which the prisoner has been charged”, but does not deign to give us his name as the lawyers and witnesses do, even though, since this was a real trial, he actually has one: Alfred Wills. Judge Hawthorne in The Crucible actively wants blood and the Judge in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine cowers behind technicalities and his pretended impartiality to heap scorn on the defendants and influence the court. The venal cowardice and bigotry of these judges is a scathing indictment of the abuse of authority and the perils of an unjust court.

Judge Whitey Presiding

The Hon. Judge Whitey. Also Futurama.

The only Judges who are even remotely sympathetic to the heroes are Captain Julius Randolph in A Few Good Men, more out of irritation with Lieutenant Colonel Jessep (the Jack Nicholson character) than anything else, and Athena in The Eumenides, who is a literal god. And, I suppose, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, although I would assert that the protagonists of that particular piece are, in fact, the villains of the story. (It is telling that of the sympathetic Judges, one was written by Shakespeare and another by Aeschylus, in a time and place where plays were not used as weapons of the counterculture). I won’t pretend this doesn’t make sense from a storytelling perspective; most modern theatre by its very nature tends to run in a countercultural direction, and there is little more countercultural than fighting an unjust court, the literal embodiment of Authority. If you want your villain to be Corrupt Society, it is easy and effective to corrupt your Judge as well, and it is therefore unsurprising that so many writers would use this tool.

Not so for us! CHALK (and its predecessors) continues to invert the status quo, making the Judge in our play matter and moving him to the opposite corner of the alignment chart [LE to CG, for my fellow nerds out there. ed.], giving him free rein to both have unpopular but just opinions and to act upon them. To be fair, our play’s origins also fall in a time and place where theatre was not a tool of the oppressed, and its original moral could easily be rendered as “Confucianism is correct.” Since we are not Song-Dynasty Chinese, however, our moral is somewhat more complex, and our Judge gets to be an active countercultural warrior.

He is also more than a voice delivering instructions to a jury off-stage or a machine programmed to clear courtrooms and overrule objections. We see him not being a Judge, having his own opinions, and in general doing more than simply dispensing justice from the bench. The Judge is a character of crucial importance in the play, second perhaps only to Alma, the ‘mother’ of the child. (Maybe third, if you count a bag of flour wrapped in cloth with no lines. Really more of a MacGuffin than a character, all things considered. But that’s a matter for another blog post.) Far from disappearing behind a one-word combination job title, description, and character name, our Judge (who has a real name, Zeke) creates and defines his own world in his own image. No passive arbiter he, Zeke brings his own beliefs and personalities to the table and forces the people around him to deal with it. He represents passion and energy, excitement and empathy, a significant tonal shift from the traditional interpretation of the Judge on stage.


L-R foreground: Raven Bonniwell (Dave), Ann Fraistat (Mary). background: Josh Adams (Zeke), Louis Davis (Jeren). Photo by Tori Boutin.

And we can’t wait to share it with you! This unorthodox take on the Judge is but one of the many exciting elements of this play that we have been sitting on here for the last few months waiting to share with you, and I am beyond thrilled that you all finally get to see it! Tickets are on sale now, and we run from tonight until July 9th at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Eastern Market. I look forward to seeing you all there.

CHALK: The Path of the Circle

Hello Faithful Readers! Loyal blogslave Keith Hock here, and I want to take this opportunity to tell you a little about our upcoming play, CHALK, and its very interesting history, but in order to do that, I need to talk to you about stories. If you read my previous blog post about Star Wars or the one about Iphigenia you know I have a lot to say about stories, where they come from, and how they’re told and explored by different people and cultures. It may or may not be obvious to you that if you break down stories, and keep breaking them down, further and further until all you have is the bare structure, you start to find similar structures. There are only so many things that can happen to a character; how many stories can be described as “man is betrayed, seeks revenge” or “woman meets man, circumstances keep them separated” or “arrogance causes a person’s downfall” or “God floods the earth”? A lot, across all cultures. Some people much much smarter than me or you (well, me at least) realized this, and that these stories kept appearing over and over in different cultures, and they created something called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folk Tale Classification Index to keep track of them; to group similar stories, trace origins, and possibly discover the Ur-Myths that gave rise to them [A friend of mine who is also much much smarter than me clued me in to the existence of this amazing resource, for an unrelated project]. The story we are telling this summer would be classified as ATU 926: Clever Acts and Words, the Judgment of Solomon, otherwise known as the Circle of Chalk.

But the bare-bones classification number and description isn’t a story, much less a compelling one that you should go see in late June or early July. The structure is not the art, its just what holds the art together. How did this dry story structure, ATU 926, become a story you would be interested to hear? I am glad you asked, because that is the exact question I spent the next 2500 words answering. I would like to tell you the story of The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from its origin in the temple of Solomon, through South Asia to the Forbidden City, all the way back up the Silk Road to Europe from the Orientalist salons to the rubble of the Berlin Wall, where We Happy Few are honored to pick up the trail ourselves.


The Judgment of Solomon, by Raphael.

The origin of the Ur-Myth that led us on the path that would eventually lead to CHALK is, in the nature of  Ur-Myths, likely destined to remain a mystery. The oldest version of the story that exists, and which I would therefore assert is the probable origin point, would be the famous Judgment of Solomon in First Kings in the Old Testament, dating, at the very latest, to around 500 BC. If you are reading this under a rock or immediately after an attack of amnesia and are therefore somehow unfamiliar with the myth, the basis of the story is that two women bring a baby to the king and each claim that the child belongs to them. Solomon, in his infinite wisdom, calls for his sword and proposes to cut the living baby in half and each presumptive mother be given an equal portion. One of the mothers rather spitefully assents to this suggestion, while the other pleads that she would rather see the child alive and raised by her rival than cut into pieces in front of her. Solomon cunningly deduces from this test that she is the true mother and awards her custody, and “all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice”. I am glossing over a few elements here (the women are prostitutes and roommates, the first one accidentally crushed her own baby to death by rolling onto it while sleeping and swapped her dead child with the other woman’s live one, the babies were born 3 days apart), but the basic structure is there. That structure is very simple. A child, usually a boy, is at stake, and two women claim it. It is one woman’s word against the other, and there is no way for any outsider to know who is telling the truth. The judge proposes a trial which will in some way harm the child, the true mother would rather give the child away than potentially hurt him, and the judge uses her compassion as evidence that she is the real mother.

Next came The Mahosadha’s Judgment from Hindu folklore. In this story, instead of two women arguing, it is a single woman and a shapeshifting ghoul who steals the child in order to devour it. In addition, the judge (in this case Mahosadha, an incarnation of the Buddha) knows from the beginning which is the true mother, as the ghoul was unable to conceal its red eyes or inability to cast a shadow from the Enlightened One. And finally, instead of threatening to cut the baby in half, Mahosadha draws a line on the ground, stands the kid between the women on it, and instructs the two women to pull the child to them. It proceeds the same; when the mother lets go she explains that she could not bear to hurt her child, the judge demonstrates from this that she must be the mother, and lectures the crowd and demon on the virtue of compassion. It is not impossible that this, or a similar story on the subcontinent, is actually the Ur-Myth; while the stories are similar, there are a number of key differences and there are no hints that clearly suggest one story was drawn from the other. The line on the ground and the arm-pulling is a storytelling advancement from bisection in the direction of the Circle, but no other version has the judge knowing the identity of the mother before he conducts the trial or any supernatural elements, both of which seem likely things to disappear as a story is refined. Since the earliest physical evidence of this story appears much later than Wisdom of Solomon, however, I am willing to give the nod to the Old Testament as the origin. It also pleases me aesthetically if the path of syncretism flows East from the Holy Land to the subcontinent to China, instead of beginning in India, moving first to the Levant and then doubling back to get to the Far East.


Sudarshanarama, by Galle Naravala

Additional evidence that the story began with the Old Testament is the original Chinese version of the story, dated around 150 AD, which is much closer to the Wisdom of Solomon than that of the Buddha, but clearly carries elements of the Hindu story; two women are pregnant, one miscarries but conceals it, steals the other’s child in the middle of the night. The judge had the child stand in the middle of the room and the women on opposite ends, and run to snatch him up. The older woman grabs him first and he begins to cry, at which the younger woman lets him go for fear of hurting him. By this evidence the Councilor-in-Chief deduces that the younger is the mother. This story features two women, one whose child has died, instead of a monster, a point in Solomon’s favor. But it also shows the women themselves being forced to act upon the child, specifically pulling on him, instead of a threat of violence from the Authority, which leans towards the Mahosadha. It could still go either way (hell, maybe THIS is the first story and the other two are disseminated from it!) but given how old the Old Testament is I still give the origin to Solomon.

This story in turn gave rise to the first representation of the story to my knowledge in play format, in Hui-Lan-Ki, The Story of the Circle of Chalk, from about 1200-1300 AD. This is where things really start to change, as the myth acquires an actual story and characters with names to lead up to the final judgment, as well as, at long last, the circle on the ground. Unfortunately, as I cannot read medieval Chinese (or modern Chinese for that matter) we must rely on the prudish 19th-century Bowlderization translation of Stanislas Julien into French in the 1820s. This translation, while old-fashioned, is absolutely hilarious, primly informing us at a particularly salacious scene that “Here follow eleven words, expurgated by Stanislas Julien, coarsely describing the physical attractions of Chen” [Naturally it was the first order of business of Kerry McGee and myself in adapting to ensure that our text made explicit mention of the nature of Chen’s …substantial physical attraction]. They also curiously remove all details on the mechanics of childbirth “for reasons of propriety” but leave in every one of the 5 beatings that the female protagonist receives, a small but telling glimpse at the priorities of 19th-century Europe.

Chalk Circle

Unnamed Illustration in  The Story of the Circle of Chalk, trans. Frances Hume, published by The Rodale Press. Painted by John Buckland-Wright

But I have put the cart before the horse. Let’s look what has been added; a plot. A young woman’s family has fallen onto hard times when her father dies and she is forced to “sell her beauty” to support her mother and brother. The brother, ashamed by this, beats his sister and departs in a rage to live with his uncle. A wealthy man has become enamored with the young woman and marries her as his second wife, but not before her mother extracts a sizable dowry from him and then promptly dies. The man’s first wife becomes jealous of her after the young woman bears him a son. She hates her husband and is having an affair with a clerk [the well-endowed Chen; see above], and the two of them begin to plot a way to kill the wealthy man and take his estate. The young woman’s brother returns impoverished and the first wife gives him gifts which the young woman had originally received from the rich man. The first wife tells the rich man that the young woman had an affair and offers the gifts she gave as evidence. In a fit of rage the rich man beats the young woman and then is poisoned by his first wife, who frames the young woman and claims the child as her own. A laughably corrupt and incompetent judge hears the testimony of some bribed townspeople, beats the young woman, sentences her to death, and then beats her some more for good measure. On the road to the capitol for execution the young woman is beaten even more by her guards and meets her brother again, who now serves in the court. In the capitol her case is heard again by a competent judge, who smells something fishy in the details. He hears the details, including all the beatings, and then calls for a piece of chalk and draws a circle on the floor. The young woman proves her innocence by releasing the child when it cries out, the clerk is beaten until he confesses to the murder, and he and the first wife are sentenced to be “cut into one hundred and twenty pieces”. And they all lived happily ever after. Not an exceptionally stirring plot, but a real story with rising and falling action and characters with traits beyond ‘mother’ and ‘judge’, ripe to be further refined.

Which it, of course, was, by German playwright Klabund in Der Kreidekreis, the Chalk Circle, about 100 years later in 1925. The plot remains the same with a few additions meant to update the story for a new audience: the wealthy man drove the young woman’s father to commit suicide, the Imperial Prince meets the young woman in the ‘tea’-house before the wealthy man marries her, her brother has fallen in with a revolutionary secret society and is sentenced to death alongside her, her case is retried after the Emperor dies and all death sentences are appealed by the new Emperor, who just happens to be the same Prince the young woman met before, and they get married.  Also, very uncomfortably, the love-struck Imperial Prince snuck into the young woman’s room while she worked in the tea house and ‘made love’ to raped her in her sleep, which she believed was a dream, and the child is revealed to actually be the new Prince of China [Kerry and I made very sure that this did NOT find its way into our interpretation of the story]. This is the same story, with a handful of flourishes to make it more interesting for a German audience, but it is still recognizably a Chinese story.

That all changed with Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the most famous interpretation of the story since Solomon (at least for now) and introducer of a number of story differences. I will not bore you with a full summary of Brecht, as it is a damn sight easier to get your hands on his plays than the Klabund or Julien, and I am already pushing 2000 words in this post. I will say, however that while the bones of the story remain identifiable, Cauc Chalk is very much its own story in a way that Der Kreidekreis was not. Brecht ditches the mother and the brothel and the affair and the poison, adds a literal class war, makes the young woman a fugitive, introduces some ancillary mean and selfish people, expands the character of the judge; he makes the story, in a word, Brechtian. Most significantly, however, he inverts the moral; the young woman is NOT the mother of the child, but a poor maid who protected the child from a mob when his mother abandoned him, and raised him herself, and when the trial comes, it is SHE, not the baby’s bourgeois mother, who is awarded custody. Also, in case his political leanings weren’t transparent enough, he adds a framing device where two neighboring kolkhoz argue about who deserves to use their adjoining valley that they liberated from the Nazis, and they turn to a character they address as “Comrade Agronomist” to settle the dispute before listening to the story of the Circle of Chalk. Brecht took the 2500-year-old implication in the myth that blood will out, that the bond of family is the most important thing in the world, and he asked if it was really still the best metric that we had, or if, perhaps, we should place more weight on a person’s actions and potential than on the circumstances of their birth. An altogether-too-relevant question for an exiled Communist German writer in the 1940s; a frustratingly-still-relevant question today.

Berlin Wall Falls

Muro de Berlin, photo by Alexandra Akavian

After Brecht, Charles Mee took a crack at the story in his own Full Circle, which he cheekily set in Brecht’s native Germany in the chaos of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. In many ways a shot-for-shot update of Brecht’s play, Full Circle doesn’t add much to the core of the Ur-Myth. Exploring the Ur-Myth and the meanings of love, duty, family, and obligation was never what Mee had in mind with this play, though; this play is about the cyclical nature of politics, and the crosshairs of Full Circle were centered on Communists, capitalists, revolutionaries, fascists…anyone who believes that there is a uniform System that would be the best for everyone, if everyone would only listen and do what they were told. Mee, in fine Mee fashion, does an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in every argument without suggesting a workable solution, enumerating what is bad without postulating what is good, and bringing everybody down a needed peg or two. The moral of his judge to the mothers is ‘If you let go of something it will be taken from you, and the winner is the person who ends with it’’. Because he is Charles Mee, he also has plenty to say about the role and purpose and meaning of art in society, particularly in the form of an exceedingly long speech he gives to his judge. As a play Full Circle is as great as your own feelings on Charles Mee and his particular style will allow it to be; as a piece exploring the Wisdom of Solomon…

All this, of course, brings us to OUR play, the next step along the path which we just began rehearsing this Monday. The Hebrews came up with the myth, the Hindus gave the actors agency, the Chinese fit the myth into a story, Brecht interrogated the moral of the myth, Mee used the myth to explore a different story; what did we add? Well, I suppose you’ll just have to come see the play in June to find out.

Until next time,
Keith Hock

STAR WARS? From the Screen to the Page to the Bar

Hello, Constant Readers, and welcome to a Very Special installment of the We Happy Few Blog. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you not to get in cars with strangers or do hard drugs or play with guns (although…don’t). I won’t even lecture you about the dangers of drinking, because that would be both extremely hypocritical of me and directly contrary to what I wanted to talk to you about. No, I wanted to tell you all about a little staged reading we did for our friends at Eat the Rich last night, in celebration of Star Wars Day and their week-long Star Wars party, complete with a themed menu and (if I may say) excellent drinks.

Shakespeare Star Wars

That’s right.  Ian Doescher was crazy enough to adapt Star Wars into Shakespearean language a couple years back, and we were crazy enough to read a portion of it (the cantina scene, for obvious reasons), because, let’s be real, it would be hard to keep us away from something as nerdy as this. The primary reason for all of this was mostly just that it was fun and silly, and despite my best efforts people want to have fun and be silly sometimes.  But there’s at least a little bit of unpacking that we can do with this, and since it is my job to overanalyze and suck the joy out everything I touch, let’s get into it!

The key for us to remember here is that part of We Happy Few’s mission is to play around with classic texts and discover new and interesting things that we can do with or learn from them by approaching them from a different direction.  As you will all recall, our definition of “classic” is intentionally obscure, because while we want to explore what makes old stories great we don’t want to be stuck only telling Shakespeare and the Greeks. Those are good stories, GREAT stories, but they aren’t the only stories. So we loosen our definition a little. Star Wars might not be as old as Hamlet or The Iliad, nor as critically acclaimed as Long Day’s Journey into Night or The Crucible, but there is no denying that it is both a classic of American film and one of the most important science fiction films ever created.

star wars poster 1

L-R: (back row) Ted E. Bear as Chewbacca, Bob Pike as Han Solo, Raven Bonniwell as Luke Skywalker, Kerry McGee as Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (front row) Kiernan McGowan as R2-D2 and C-3PO, Tori Boutin as Greedo and Stormtrooper

The interesting thing about Star Wars occupying such a significant spot in the pantheon of cinema and storytelling is that it isn’t a particularly innovative story. Other, better writers than me have written at great length about how Star Wars follows Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey like Campbell himself wrote it as an example of how to execute the Hero’s Journey, so I will spare you the blow-by-blow of how perfectly Obi-Wan slots in as the Mentor or the way that each film so well encapsulates both a miniature Journey AND serves as a portion of a larger Journey spanning the entire trilogy (I assure you if you would like to follow up on that there are countless thinkpieces here on the Onlines for you to peruse). Lucas and co. took the bare bones of a story, the foundational tools of the concept of Storytelling, and they wrapped it in their own words and vision and images and ideas. The bones are still there and they are what makes the story work, but that isn’t what makes it the best science fiction movie ever made; it was the craftsmanship.

Star Wars Homestead Burned

From Star Wars, 1977, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

In similar fashion (and this is actually one of my favorite things about Shakespeare) almost every play he ever wrote was plagiarized from based on another, older story.  Pore through the index of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae or Holinshed’s Chronicles and you will see names like Lier, Kymbeline, and MacBeth. Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon, and Pericles were all famous names and stories to the Romans. An Italian novelist by the name of Matteo Bandetto wrote something called Guilietta e Romeo some 50 years before Shakespeare wrote his own, suspiciously similarly-named play.  Boccaccio’s Decameron is riddled with the plots of comedies and tragedies alike, and there are countless other plays in English and Italian from the previous century filled with twins, mistaken identities, crossdressing, shipwrecks and all the elements we now associate with Shakespearean comedies. Why did Shakespeare’s version succeed where all those other interpretations failed? He was a better writer than they were. We don’t read Shakespeare for the story, we read him for the poetry. Without the poetry Romeo and Juliet is as hackneyed a story as they come, and no one would tolerate Hamlet’s whining vacillation if he didn’t articulate it so beautifully. The plot isn’t the important part; what matters is how we tell it. We remember Shakespeare for bringing those basic stories to vibrant and beautiful life, just as we remember Star Wars for creating a thoroughly believable and livable universe and characters out of the most basic building blocks of storytelling.

Which, of course, brings me back to the reading we did last night, of Doescher’s retelling of Star Wars in the language of Shakespeare. If what I just spent the last thousand words going on about is accurate (and it is) then that reading would represent the perfect marriage of the world-building of Star Wars with the poetry of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, supported by the unshakable storytelling core of the Monomyth and brought to glorious life by our crack team of performers. In theory, by the numbers, it should be the most spectacular, memorable work of fiction ever conceived!  Was it?

Death Star KersplodeNo. It was silly and it was fun, which was the point. Doescher isn’t Shakespeare, nor does he claim to be. He put them together because they are two things that he enjoyed and he thought it would be fun to put them together.  We read it for the same reason (and also because Eat the Rich asked us to). Not everything has to be deathly serious and utterly committed to artistic integrity and literary theory, or so I have been reminded at my last performance review.  Sometimes things can be fun.

Speaking of fun, I strongly encourage all of you reading to check out Eat The Rich’s Star Wars Celebration, going on this whole week (including tonight and tomorrow!)  You should absolutely go tonight, and maybe for a little while tomorrow, before you come to OUR FUNDRAISING EVENT, conveniently located nearby just a few blocks from Eat the Rich! I hope to see you there!

May the Force be with you,

Keith Hock

Iphigenia: Director Chat!

Hello again, readers.  It’s me, blog slave Keith Hock, here with some more ranting and raving on the subject of our upcoming reading of Iphigenia.  We’re gonna mix it up today, however, and the majority of the ranting will come not from myself, but from the director of the reading and my maybe-boss, Bridget Grace Sheaff (the managerial hierarchy of We Happy Few is Byzantine, to say the least, and the only thing I can say with any degree of confidence is that I am NOT in charge).  Readers from the last time I had Bridget drop by will recall that she is much better at saying nice things than I am, so those of you still with functioning hearts should be very excited to have her back.  She has graciously consented to an interview which we certainly conducted face-to-face over tea, and not in any way over the internet and hours apart while we were both snowed into our respective apartments this previous weekend.

Keith: Tell us about yourself.  How did you come to be entangled in the WHF network?  Are you secretly gunning for my job?

Bridget: Wow. So suspicious. Why would I be after your job? Seriously. Drink your tea.
No, go ahead, drink it. It’s perfectly safe…

The short answer: I fell in love. It’s as easy as that.

The long answer: I think one of the answers I hear the most from theatre artists when they are asked how they get jobs is “It’s who you know.” Which, after you hear it over and over again, becomes quite annoying. But it’s truth doesn’t disappear. (These are my exact feelings about Taylor Swift songs- always annoying, always true to life.)  So, yes, I got involved with We Happy Few because I went to school with Bob Pike (the sound designer of Duchess of Malfi, CUA Class of 2014) who got involved because he talked to Kiernan McGowan (trusted Brain Trust member who also graduated from CUA (represent, amiright)) who is now engaged to Raven Bonniwell (co-founding Artistic Director).

Right? It’s who you know. But it’s also about finding your tribe, about finding people whose work speaks to you. So when I was looking for projects to get involved in, I took a look at the work WHF had done in the past, of which I heard nothing but high praise. And, I’ll tell you what, I don’t believe in fate. But I got pretty close to believing when it hit me that the goals of WHF and my goals were synchronous if not identical.

And so it’s less about me than it is about mission and goals and finding people who want to change the world in the same way you do. (Look at me, I’m gettin’ all misty over here.I am a fool/ To weep at what I am glad of.”) That should tell you everything you need to know about me. And I really mean that.

K: Drop some knowledge about the difference between directing a staged reading and directing a performance.  What about it is easier?  What is harder?

B: Directing a staged reading is actually quite difficult. You would think it would be easy. “Oh hey, all your actors will have scripts and they are just expected to stand and talk and sound pretty and make the right faces at the right time and you don’t have to worry that they don’t have it memorized or that they forget a costume piece or whatever, you’re going to be fine.”

That’s a surface level analysis of a staged reading.

In a staged reading, the text is the star. The play is the only ego in the room you need to be concerned about. It rules. It dominates. It stares you in the face and does that annoying nose-flick thing every nine seconds. It demands that you pay attention to it and acknowledge the wound that it opens. It says, “I am flawed and complicated and leagues deep with knowledge. I am older than you and I have something to teach you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY.”

Of course you have to do this with a full production. But in a full production, you get to use the text to do things on stage. In a staged reading, the text uses you to do things to an audience.

It’s vulnerable important work. It’s no less valuable than work on a full production. It just involves less props.

K: Why?  Why Iphigenia?  Why, specifically, THIS Iphigenia?

B: If I’m being totally honest (which I wish was a bigger failing of mine), I knew NOTHING about this play or even it’s original legend four months ago. As most things go in the Brain Trust [Editor: point of clarification; the Brain Trust is how we refer to the organizational core of We Happy Few.  My pitches to call it the War Council, the Synod, and the High Circle were rejected], one person suggests one thing, which leads to one person suggesting another things, which leads to Bridget volunteering to help in whatever way possible. In this case, it happened in such a way where Bridget volunteered to help cut and organize the script in a some sort of WHF fashion of changing the play and ended with a stellar cast of actors that make Bridget’s heart flutter. I didn’t choose Iphigenia as much as I stumbled over it one day, turned around to see what had made me lose my footing, and found this beautiful story that I can’t stop thinking about. This particular Iphigenia happened because of my absolute devotion to Racine and all things French. (I’ll get into that later). I will tell you that if I had to answer “Why this play, why now?” I would give you some long flowery answer that essentially boils down to this: what does it mean to sacrifice? When all instincts to love and protect and serve the ones we love fall short of what is asked, what is the precipitate of the reaction?

K: There’s a pretty enormous parallel between the Iphigenia story and the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis, which I unaccountably managed to completely ignore in my previous blog post.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

B: I’m very Catholic, I have thoughts on everything. It actually is one of the things I continually come back to when I think about this piece. Of course, in the Abraham story, God was testing him to see if his faith was strong enough to trust something as precious as his son to the Lord (and, you know, is foreshadowing for the whole Jesus thing, but let’s not get into that because we could be here all day). In this story, it’s pretty clear that Iphigenia is going to die. She has to die. These gods work in a different way than the Judeo-Christian God, even the one in the Old Testament. I could get pretty theologically philosophical with you, but I only have minors in Theology and Philosophy. However, I have a major in Drama, so I instead am going to talk about how this is MAJOR DRAMA.  It’s a classic story, sacrificing your children. And both Abraham and Agamemnon are reasons that it is classic. It’s something we all identify with, even those of us without children. It’s access to our empathetic pathways is immediate. It sits on our skin and instantaneously seeps into our bloodstream. It hearkens back to landmarks in our mythic and spiritual culture that we all identify. And that’s why we can keep telling it today.

K: As a dame [Editor: I narrowly dodged a slap here], how do you feel about my assertion that the primary drama in this story is about how Agamemnon is forced into an unwinnable situation?  Do you think that is true, or am I blinded by my own undeniable masculinity about the true nature of the piece?  Does it change from version to version?

B: Yes. Thank you for asking this question. Let’s talk about this: Yes. I am a female director. Yes. There is some inherent male/female dichotomy in this play. Yes. I think that it is a really interesting aspect to talk about.

HOWEVER. For me, this is a play primarily about human beings, not just men and women. This is a play about family. This is a play about duty and sacrifice and loyalty and war and love and heartbreak and ruin and triumph and fate and God and country and children and, ultimately, fault. That’s the primary drama of the story. What goes wrong.

I think that you are structurally correct that Agamemnon’s struggle is the catalyst of the piece. That is what the through line of the story is saying to us. If we are going to look further at the piece, I think we need to talk about what changes from beginning to end. Elinor Fuchs tells us that we can find the heart of the story by setting the play in the middle distance and looking at the play through squinted eyes all the way through. And when we look at Iphigenia this way, we have at both ends parent’s fretting about the fate of their child. Even though Clytemnestra only comes in (like a wrecking ball) halfway through, she is the parent remaining onstage at the end while Ulysses describes the scene at the temple. This directly bookends Agamemnon talking to Ulysses at the initial incident of the play. And so my argument is that the true nature of the piece is not about men or women, but about how our labels and roles define how we react under pressure.

K: Who do you think is the most interesting/exciting character in this show?

B: I love Racine’s added character of Eriphile. There is something so April Ludgate about her. She speaks to a part of us that we all like to deny. We would all love to be the tragic hero. We would love to be the victim. We would love to be the martyr. Because those people are revered and respected and sacrificed for. And what’s great about Eriphile is that she LOUDLY wants all of those things. She is frustrated and annoyed that Iphigenia gets that kind of attention. What an amazing and very human desire to explore in this age of digitalization, of internet stardom and reality TV fame. And what a fascinating take on self-centered sacrifice. Where is the virtue in that thought process? I mean that question very seriously. I’m really excited to look at this character further.

K: Is there anybody you’re especially excited to work with on your cast for the reading?  Anyone you’re dreading?

B: I couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast! I’m excited to work with everyone. One of the big highlights of this for me is that I get to watch Melissa Flaim act. I have deeply and fervently admired Melissa since my time at CUA. The first time I ever saw her, I got to watch her fearlessly and with amazing grace tell a boy in my Drama 101 class that if he was going to be proud of doing half-hearted work then there was no reason for her to be in the room because he could do that without her. She taught me so much about how to be in command and watching her as Clytemnestra may be the highlight of my 2016.

I’m dreading working with Tori Boutin because she is my best friend and really talented and funny and clearly I hate her with my whole soul. (Is she reading this? I hope so. She’s gonna be so mad.)

K: This translation is, in the nature of French plays, structured as rhyming couplets.  How long does it take you reading it to not hear it all sing-songy and actually take it serious?

B: I think that verse text is my soulmate. It understands me in a way I don’t understand myself. I come back to it at the end of the day, safe and secure in the truth it provides me. I don’t know what it is, but I love French plays. Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite piece of theatre of all time, Racine’s Phedre is my current dream project, and who doesn’t love Moliere? The rhyming couplets doesn’t bother me at all. I gave up the idea that something that rhymes sounds like songs a long time ago. (I mean, look at Sondheim. Rhyming or not, there is nothing “sing-songy” about that man’s work.)

To me, something is too “sing-songy” when it is just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. If it has purpose and drive, then rhyme merely helps bounce the actor from line to line. Really, if the text is about human beings, real and full-blooded people with real and earnest problems, then it’s not “too” anything for me.

The translation makes all the difference in my mind. My friend Bob once compared translating to carving wood. Pieces of the original block have to go, but if you are careful, you are going to get something equally as beautiful as the end result as you did with the original. When translating from French, especially translating Racine, you have to balance keeping the verse intact, the rhyme intact, the meaning intact, and the story intact. It takes a lot of skill and what is great about using the Cairncross translation is that so much of the original beauty of the text is preserved with great care and tact. It’s really exciting.

And there you have it, folks.  Hopefully this will have piqued your curiosity to see what exactly we’ve been talking about these last two blog posts.  Perhaps you are curious how Racine (and then Cairncross, and then Ms. Sheaff) were able to take this ancient story and update it, drag it from the Festivals of Dionysus in Attica some three thousand years in the past, through the court of the Sun King, and share it and make it relevant to you today.  It could be you want to know how exactly Bridget exists with all this passion clearly boiling out of her at all times, and you want to see how that manifests in her directing.  Maybe you’re mad at me for some reason and you want to attend this solely to yell at me for some error or slight I have made (It’s probably that last one, isn’t it.)  Whatever the reason, you should be able to satisfy your burning desires at our fundraising event, tonight at 7:30PM at CHAW in Eastern Market.  Free Reading!  Fabulous Prizes!  Cash Bar!  Cool People!  Donation Opportunities!  Truly the social event of the season.  I look forward to seeing you all there.

Iphigenia(s): History Lesson

Happy New Year, Loyal Readers, and welcome to an exciting new chapter for your favorite independent theatre company, We Happy Few! This will be a year of many firsts for us as we throw caution to the winds and, in brazen defiance of Friar Lawrence, Polonius, Gonzago, Nestor, and all those other stick-in-the-mud father figures our protagonists never listen to, we wildly experiment, take risks, and push our boundaries.  Experiments, risks, and boundaries like exploring non-Elizabethan theatre, as you may have guessed from my name-drop of Nestor in my list of father figures (as well, I suppose, from the title of this blog post, which is almost universally a giveaway of the topic of the accompanying blog).  First of all, well-spotted on Nestor, a fairly deep cut.  But I’m prepared to cut you one deeper; the story of Iphigenia.  Not old-school Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis OR Tauris, nor the avant-garde Charles Mee Iphigenia 2.0.  Not even Aeschylus’ lost Iphigenia (but man, wouldn’t THAT be a coup!)  But 17th-century Neoclassical Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Racine’s Iphigénie, which we are proud to bring to you at the end of this month in a totally free staged reading (follow THIS link for details). Later on, in a future blog post, we can delve into what exactly is so compelling about Racine’s interpretation of the story and why we chose to tackle it, but before we get to that I wanted to look at all these different versions of the story and address, specifically, what the deal with that was.


The original story of Iphigenia, or at least the time it was probably first written down, would probably have been in the Cypria, the first ‘book’, as it were, of the Epic Cycle (a series of poems depicting the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath; the only extant portions are The Iliad and The Odyssey; we know OF the others through summaries and references in other works).  The Cypria depicted the beginning of the story; as my readers will certainly remember, the Iliad is set a full 9 years into the war, while the Odyssey takes place after the war is won. Seeing as Iphigenia deals directly with how the Greeks got to Troy, the episode that tells that story would fall there.  However, as with the majority of the Epic Cycle, the VAST majority of Greek Theatre (including Aeschylus’ telling of the story in his Iphigenia), and Billy Shakes’ Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won, the Cypria is lost to the sands of time, and we must, unfortunately, swallow our tears and learn to accept that.

Great Library

The Course of Empire – Destruction.  Thomas Cole, 1836.

For that reason and for the purposes of this blog post I am willing to accept Euripides’ telling of the story of Iphigenia at Aulis as the ‘canonical’, if such a thing existed, true (or at least original) story.  It is also the simplest version of the story, and the version from which the other interpretations would most reasonably be retconned adapted; also, elements of other stories, most notably the Oresteia, only work if the story plays out as Euripides has it.  But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I can talk about how the story changed from version to version we have to discuss what the original story was.  What, exactly, happened on Aulis at the beginning of the Trojan War?

Briefly, Agamemnon had gathered the combined forces of Greece to Aulis to stage their invasion of Troy.  While there, he did something to offend Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt; to wit, killing a stag in a sacred grove, and then (exceedingly foolishly) claiming to be a better hunter than Artemis, the aforementioned Goddess of the Hunt.  So she stopped the winds and stranded the army on Aulis, and sent word through the seer Calchas that she would only allow the winds to return if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to her.  Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia to be brought to Aulis, and then vacillates in fine Danish fashion for a while, sending another messenger to send her home, which is intercepted by his brother Menelaus.  He lets the cat out of the bag RE: sacrifice to Menelaus and continues to be wracked with indecision.  Iphigenia arrives with her mother Clytemnestra and baby brother Orestes; to cover for her being there Agamemnon pretends to betroth her to Achilles.  The subterfuge is shortly revealed and Agamemnon makes up his mind to sacrifice her.  Her husband-to-be is understandably distraught and vows to prevent it, but discovers that literally the entire Greek army, including his own men, would rather kill Iphigenia than give up and go home.  Iphigenia assents to the sacrifice, and the play ends with her marching to her death and Clytemnestra weeping.

This is what I would assert to be the original story.  However, even before we branch into differing titles and interpretations, there is debate on whether or not this is the ‘true’, for lack of a better word, story.  The extant manuscripts include a brief scene after the chorus, where a messenger rushes on stage to inform Clytemnestra that Artemis descended from the heavens, snatched up Iphigenia before the knife could strike home, and replaced her with a stag.  This… lacks somewhat the ring of truth, even in a world where gods turn women into trees and themselves into swans.  It emotionally neuters the play and is not, in my mind, in keeping with the tone of Greek Tragedy as a whole, especially considering the generally lax attitude the Atreides have toward kin-slaughter. Speaking of the Atreides, it also explicitly negates the story of The Oresteia, the conclusion of their generational curse; if Agamemnon doesn’t kill Iphigenia on Aulis, Clytemnestra has no valid reason to kill Agamemnon at the end of the Trojan War, and if Clytemnestra doesn’t kill Agamemnon, Orestes has no reason to kill Clytemnestra, and if Orestes doesn’t kill Clytemnestra, Athena and Apollo have no reason intercede on his behalf and allow trial by jury to supplant the Law of Vengeance and, at long last, expiate the sins of his house (spoilers).  My research is of two minds about this discussion; the editors and translators of my copy of the play assert that scholars are more or less universal in accepting the final scene as a later addition, but they asserted that in 1958, and almost 60 years of critical analysis have passed since then.  Alternatively, the fine folks over at Wikipedia are more or less convinced that the canonical answer is that she is rescued at the last second, but they are anonymous Wikipedia editors and may well be C.H.U.D.s for all I know.


A Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, C.H.U.D., 1984

In spite of my disapproval of the theory, the deus ex ending does have a disheartening number of adherents, including Euripides himself, who wrote another Iphigenia play entitled Iphigenia at Tauris.  In it Iphigenia has been whisked away from Aulis, deposited in the Crimea and made the High Priestess of Artemis for the Scythians.  Her brother Orestes bumbles his way there via shipwreck, seeking expiation for killing Clytemnestra, and is almost sacrificed in his turn before the siblings share a revelatory conversation about their homes which almost certainly served as an inspiration for the pay-out scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances (see HERE for more information about the Romances, written by Your Humble Narrator).  It also shares a good deal in common with another Euripides play, Helen, in which another important piece of Trojan history is rewritten; we discover that Helen was not in Troy at all, but secreted away to Egypt, awaiting rescue by her True Love, Menelaus!

These alternate endings read like fan fiction, as though someone read these stories and said “no, its too sad if she dies. What if INSTEAD, God saves her, and they become BEST BUDS” (Seriously, one of the other stories floating around is that Iphigenia becomes Hecate, goddess of witchcraft and hangs out with Artemis on Mt Olympus).  I know the Greeks literally invented the “deus ex machina” ending, but in general the Greek gods were not in the habit of SAVING human lives with them so much as ruining them, and it hardly seems likely that Artemis would want to let Agamemnon off the hook for his familial curse just because Iphigenia never did anything to anybody (this play was written 2500 years ago, OF COURSE the real tragedy is her father having to make a no-win choice). Having alternate endings and stories like these would seem like Bowdlerization if that weren’t such an anachronism, or if we had even the slightest indication the Greeks were concerned about the sensibilities of their kids.

Think of the Children

Helen Lovejoy, The Simpsons.

The version that we’re doing also deviates from what I will increasingly desperately and inaccurately call the canonical story, but it does so in a less “Mom stops the movie right before Old Yeller gets shot” and more of a “Frenchman updates the story to account for some 2000 years of advancement in storytelling” way.  A new character, Eriphyle, Iphigenia’s jealous handmaiden of uncertain parentage, is added and ends up narcing to the Greek Army about the nature of the prophecy.  Achilles and Iphigenia have been betrothed for some time, in order to inject some much-needed romance into the plot. Odysseus (or “Ulysses”, as Racine wrongly calls him) is given a handful of lines and allowed to serve as the mouthpiece and ringleader of the bloodthirsty, populist army. Also, in a Shymalan-style twist ending, it turns out that Eriphyle is Helen’s secret daughter by Theseus, that her birthname is also Iphigenia, and that SHE was the necessary sacrifice all along.  Eriphyle herself her quietus makes with a bare bodkin, Iphigenia is spared, and the brutal 10-year siege and subsequent sack of Troy can go on as scheduled! Everybody wins!  Except for Eriphyle.  And Troy.

You may notice I am cutting this new version an awful lot of slack, which should strike you as a very un-me thing to do, especially considering the scorn with which I addressed the other revisionist pieces in this blog post.  To which I say, first of all, I write what I am ordered to what I choose, I don’t have to answer to you!  On a less confrontational note, the Greek plays and stories exist as part of a much larger and interconnected narrative; even what little remains extant to us displays a remarkably complex relationship between an astounding number of characters, and our modern storytelling sensibilities tell us that there must be a single correct canonical through-line (get me drunk and ask me about the difference between the Lord of the Rings books and movies sometime for a belligerent example of what I mean).

Helm's Deep

Haldir (Craig Parker) and Lorien Elves at Helm’s Deep, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002.  They shouldn’t be here.

But there is little evidence to suggest that the Greeks themselves thought of them that way.  In fact, given that at least two surviving plays we have represent direct contradictions of the ‘traditional’ story, it could easily be argued that the opposite was true! These are the stories that the actual Greeks actually told, and seeing as there are fewer than three dozen Tragedies still in existence (7 from Aeschylus, 7 from Sophocles, and 19 from Euripides), it would be foolish to discount them from the discussion simply because I disapproved of them.  If the Greeks were opposed to deviation in their storytelling, what would be the purpose of different versions?  Yet we have records of multiple tellings of the same story; Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy versus Euripides’ play Orestes, or Sophocles’ lost Clytemnestra. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or At Colonus versus Euripides’ lost Oedipus. A Bacchae by both Euripides and Aeschylus.  A lost Ixion, whatever that is, by all three. We know so little of the stories the Greeks told that we treat everything we can find as precious, but they don’t seem to have felt the same.  These were not the sacred relics of a dead civilization to them, they were everyday stories, the casual backdrop to their lives. Earlier I described the revisionist stories as fan fiction; that description may be decidedly apt.

And if Greek storytellers didn’t consider themselves bound into that all-encompassing narrative, French NeoClassicists were certainly under no such compulsion.  Racine wasn’t creating a grand narrative with a pantheon of interconnected characters; he was updating a single story from that narrative to suit Renaissance French sensibilities. French audiences would have expected a romantic angle; he found one for them.  They would expect Odysseus to matter in a story that includes him; Racine conjured him some lines. The original Greek story is largely concerned with the inevitability of the will of the gods, as Greek Tragedies tend to be.  Renaissance France is not concerned with the desires of Artemis, however, so Racine created a new moral by punishing Eriphyle for her jealousy and betrayal of Iphigenia.  He was making the story accessible to his audience, and if there’s one thing We Happy Few is concerned with doing, it is making classical stories accessible.

So there you have it!  A laughably short crash course in Greek theatre and legend (I didn’t even TOUCH the Theban cycle, and then there’s the Titanomachia, and Herakles, and the Argo…), a meditation on the way cultures interact with their stories, and a sneak peek at our upcoming reading.  Join me next time when we go much more in-depth into the whys and wherefores of Racine’s Iphigenia with my younger, smarter, and prettier colleague Bridget Grace Sheaff,who drew the short straw and was roped into positively leapt at the opportunity to direct the reading.